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JET makes its digital debut [Commentary]

Derek Jeter's impending retirement from Major League Baseball after 20 years, marked by emotional tributes during the All Star Game last week, is not the only reason this New York Yankees fan has been unsettled by the passage of time.

JET magazine, the pocket-sized source of news about blacks since 1951, has bowed to the ages and gone digital with a new app. But its debut digital issue this month makes clear that JET is no longer the magazine for anyone who claims to be at least middle-aged. I'm on the cusp of 60 — old enough to remember when Mr. Jeter was a rookie and so old that, until she graced the cover of Digital issue No. 1, I had no idea who the "digital diva" Keke Palmer is or that the 20-year-old has a new daily talk show on the BET network.

Years ago someone — maybe Maya Angelou — came up with the line its publisher still uses: "If it wasn't in JET, it didn't happen." Well, a lot did happen during the decades JET could be found in mailboxes or on newsstands. JET depicted struggle, and it depicted progress. Its early claim to fame was its unflinching coverage of the murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till in Mississippi in 1955. I was in it as a law student working on death penalty cases in Georgia in 1977 and again in 1996 as a Pulitzer Prize winner. My hometown was in it in the 1950s when a group of blacks said they were not interested in integrating the public schools and again in the 1980s when the black coach of the formerly white high school did the honorable thing after he discovered that a minor player on his championship basketball team had been ineligible. He voluntarily forfeited the title. Oh, the memories.

Maybe the message here is not just that digital trumps print in the 21st century but also that blacks no longer require that little magazine to validate our presence. Maybe this is what progress is supposed to look like: a digital journal heavy on celebrities with great pictures and videos. But this does not feel like progress.

For years people counted on JET being around, even if they did not subscribe. It was in the barbershops, in the beauty parlors, in waiting rooms. Long before Barack Obama was even an ambitious senator, JET heralded our successes in the Jim Crow era when federal civil service promotions, admission to the Ivy League, opening a show on the Las Vegas Strip, or appointment as chief jailer at a county jail were regarded as national milestones.

Before the Obamas took up residency in the White House, JET told us about top black staffers there, from butlers on up. In February 1955 JET reported: "In a revolutionary move designed to show the world 'American Negroes are socially equal to whites,' President Eisenhower quietly ordered all social barriers dropped at the White House and more Negro guests and entertainers invited to official functions." It also meant that black men like JET's founder, John H. Johnson, would be invited to "the private stag dinners which the President gives for top U.S. industrialists, businessmen and educators."

From the beginning, Baltimoreans were regulars in JET, from NAACP leaders to educators to athletes. The January 20, 1955, issue — in which the main story was "JET Visits Baltimore" — featured on the cover a "pretty 19-year-old coed sophomore at Baltimore's famed Morgan State College." The old JET went for cheesecake, with comely women in bathing suits, strapless evening gowns or maybe a mink coat, and it promoted entertainers and athletes. Still, there were also enough hard news nuggets to provide some gravitas. In times of hopelessness, the old JET showed black people succeeding against the odds. When schools did not teach it, JET gave us "this week in history" from a black perspective. JET brought Africa and the Caribbean into our homes. It introduced us to movers and shakers in Washington and on Wall Street.

Digital JET promises even more news about celebrities for readers to "tap and swipe [their] way through" on their devices. Its news updates, even about sports, are so far lacking even by the old JET's sense of timeliness.

I pray that digital JET does for a new audience what the old JET did. For many of us, though, time flies. An era has ended.

E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her email is er.shipp@aol.com.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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